Palestinians lit a four-story Christmas tree in this biblical town Saturday, kicking off a holiday season free of fighting with Israel that officials say will bring the most pilgrims since hostilities broke out seven years ago.
Residents of the West Bank town of 30,000 and foreign tourists alike strolled streets Saturday under lights shaped like bells and Santa Claus. Christians count for only a small percentage of Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land, including Bethlehem, but the town believed to be the birthplace of Jesus is one of the few places that Christmas is felt.
Tourism is integral to efforts to bolster the Palestinian economy, which is tattered from years of conflict with Israel. Early in the fighting that broke out in 2000, Bethlehem was the scene of fierce shootouts between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli army forces in nearby Jerusalem who fired at each other across a riverbed separating the communities. For several Christmas seasons, only a handful of tourists came.
But relative calm in the West Bank this year combined with renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have persuaded some tourists to return. Mideast envoy Tony Blair visited Bethlehem this month and spent the night to signal that it is safe to visit.
"We see encouraging signs with more tourists here," Hanna Tofian, a university professor, said as he emerged from prayers at the Church of the Nativity to a square crowded with tour buses. "It is because of the diplomatic atmosphere and because there is movement in talks with Israel."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed in a U.S.-hosted conference last month to renew peace talks. The reconciliation came after Abbas kicked the Islamic Hamas movement out of the government following its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June, and installed a moderate administration of his own, backed by the West.
This season, around 65,000 tourists are expected to visit the traditional site of Jesus' birth, Mayor Victor Batarseh said. That's four times the number that came in Christmas 2005.
Israeli and Palestinian forces have cooperated to facilitate the passage of pilgrims from Jerusalem through an Israeli army checkpoint into Bethlehem, said Ahmed al-Haddar, the area's Palestinian security chief. About 1,500 Palestinian police will be deployed during the festivities, he said.
An aide to Abbas, Rafik Husseini, flicked the switch to light the pine tree that was decorated with red and gold balls. Dozens of onlookers cheered and a band of bagpipes played Christmas carols.
Bethlehem resident Margaret Jackman, 70, said she was encouraged by the tourists.
"The town greatly benefits from this," Jackman said. "This will help reduce the unemployment."
Larry Ross, a visitor from Dallas, Texas, said Saturday that he was so sure of the calm situation that he brought his son on the trip. He was touring with 70 Americans.
"This is a place that, as a person of faith, is very meaningful to me," said Ross, 54, standing alongside his son, Harrison. "The message of hope that Christmas brings started right here."